In follow-up to my last article which examined the coaching, management, and the club's President and their possible removal from their respective positions, this column will now look at the team itself.
Instead of saving the biest for last, we will start off with a look at Jarome Iginla.
The Flames' captain and all-time points-leader has been bandied about by several people in the media as well as fans of the team as possible trade bait. At $7M per season, trading the team leader would definitely free up salary and at this time, generate quite a return for the Calgary Flames.
However, this potential deal makes no sense on so many different levels.
First, despite two seasons of performing below expectations, Iginla is still the heart and soul of this team's offense. Several players and coaches around the league have bluntly stated that the way to beat Calgary is to shut down Iginla.
Those of us who watch every available NHL contest the Flames play can attest to seeing this in action: The opposing team's shut-down lines key on "Iggy," taking away his passing and shooting lanes and making sure he stays on the perimeter as much as they can during games.
The anemic offence of this team is unable to fully compensate, which has resulted in more losses than wins. Iginla's only achilles' heel is the shoot-out and this weakness is not enough to spark a deal.
Another reason to keep the Captain—other than his incredible commitment to the city of Calgary—is the simple fact that there is nobody currently capable of stepping in to fill his shoes. Jarome plays with his heart on his sleeve, wants to win and is very gifted offensively still, despite starting to get a little long in the tooth.
Let the trade rumours die, here and now. Jarome Iginla, the Face of the Flames, is not going anywhere.
The No. 1 goaltender, Miikka Kiprussoff, had a rebound year this season, posting a Vezina-worthy campaign that was unfortunately wasted. There is absolutely no way that this man will be jetting to a different city to take up goaltending duties for any other team.
Sutter's July 1, 2009 acquisition of Jay Bouwmeester was heralded as another coup for the man who turned the fortunes of this franchise around—that is, until people saw his play on the ice. Expecting at least 15 goals from the versatile blue liner, the team and fans were both dissapointed in J-Bo's output
This is not a knock on him by any means, really: His defensive game was extremely good this year, bordering on elite, and he played miles ahead of the departed Dion Phaneuf on the Flames' back-end. It took most of the season for him to feel comfortable enough to display flashes of the offensive brilliance everyone expected to see from his first game in the flaming "C." He will have at the very least half of next season to find his game before any trade buttons are pressed.
Matt Stajan, one of the players to come over from the Maple Leafs in the Phaneuf deal, was almost immediately signed by Sutter to an above-average contract. The reason for this is simple: he's a proven goal scorer and is also responsible on the ice at his position.
He may not net 40 a year, but he will be counted on for at least 20 per season. Stajan will be another mainstay on this team.
Rene Bourque will also not be going anywhere unless a phenomenal deal can be swung for him. The only real knock on him is the fact that he has not had a full, injury-free season since he came from Chicago—where he also suffered from mid-season injuries. This past season might have been among his least-injured one. Bourque can be counted on to fill the net for a few more years.
Mark Giordano quietly put on a clinic in some games and showed nothing but promise and upside in a great career-season. Despite his great year, he has shown that the best is yet to come from this always-improving, responsible defense man. After coming back from a year in Russia, Sutter will make sure to keep Gio as long as he can hold onto him.
These players can be considered the six players that the coaching staff and management will retool the team around. The rest of the roster can not be considered "safe," plain and simple. Despite the thoughts and opinions of some armchair GM's out there, Sutter has proven more than once that he will wheel and deal if—I repeat if—he can acquire a player or players he covets.
Taking a look at all the restricted and unrestricted free agents on the team (there are seven in total: Six UFA's and one RFA), let's start with the team's only RFA, Ian White. Taking both Phaneuf's position and jersey number, White has shown to be a capable replacement for the former Red Deer Rebel.
Smaller and less prone to throw a "big" hit, he is more defensively responsible than Dion was, and he also has enough of a scoring touch to make up for what some fans think the team lost with the trade with Toronto. You can expect him to stay with the team with possibly a bit more cash than the standard raise most restricted free agents receive. The only real question is the length of a new deal.
You can expect the exodus to begin with elder statesman Craig Conroy. A great guy on and off the ice, Connie has lost a step or two over the last few seasons and can no longer keep up with today's game. Wanting to stay in Calgary, he understands the possible future and can see the writing on the wall. I'll miss Conroy and hope he can catch on with a team that can use his leadership and experience.
Christopher Higgins came over from the New York Rangers in the trade that saw the departure of Ollie Jokinen, and he remains a question mark. Injuries aside, he didn't really contribute a lot to the team. The only reason Sutter signs him would be to use him in any trade that might be made. The best bet is watching him walk, along with Conroy.
Jamal Mayers also came from Toronto and added a bit of grit to the Flames. At $1.4M, he could be signed if he agrees to pretty much the same money. He only has a couple more seasons left in him as a full-time player, so why not spend them in Calgary?
This brings us to the teams current "enforcer," Brian McGratton. A physical presence with more skill than the last tough guy, Andre Roy, he still has a limited skill-set compared to Mayers. If Mayers can be convinced to take the money Sutter will offer, you can bank on McGratton having played his last game in Calgary. The question is whether Sutter lets him walk or signs him only for another puzzle piece for a trade.
Possibly the most-wanted UFA on this team at least by the fans, Eric Nystrom will wind up likely having to decide on whether to accept any offer Sutter makes or take a deal that the New York Islanders would probably put together. It's not exactly a secret that the team his father played for during the dynasty years would love to incorporate his offspring into their lineup.
If the offer expected by the Islanders is next to unreal, and/or Nystrom wants to play in his "hometown," then Flames fans who loved him will get the chance to boo him at least once a year.
The last on this list is back-up Vesa Toskala. at over four million a season, he is way too expensive to be signed as a backup to Kiprusoff. Convince this man to accept a three million dollar reduction in pay and Sutter will sign him, and brother Brent would give him at least 15 games next season. He may be a fellow countryman and good friend to Kipper, but you can probably expect to see him long gone by the time September rolls around.
The rest of the current roster is as keepable as they are tradeable. Mainstay Robin Regher hasn't played the same since going down to injury in the middle of the 2008-09 season. He needs to have a spectacular rebound year to reclaim the title of the league's best shut-down D-man. If not, you might be waving by to him by January.
Ales Kotalik is a $3M player who plays like a $1M player. He really doesn't fit into the Sutters' idea of what they want this team to be and Darryl will likely try to move him as soon as he can. But until he finds someone to take on this underachiever's contract, he will likely start the year in Calgary.
Niklas Hagman was good enough to make the Finnish Olympic team this past year. His totals for the '09-'10 season show he can still make a definite contribution to this team: Twenty-five goals forty-four points offers yet another potential 20-goal scorer to a team that wound up desperate to light the lamp from December to the end of the year. Don't expect him to be traded away unless, again, the "right" deal comes along.
Daymond Langkow is a dilemma. He could wind up filling the departing Conroy's shoes as the team's elder statesman, or he could be shipped, likely in a package deal, possibly to Florida or Tampa, as abounding rumours suggest.
Nigel Dawes, Curtis Glencross, Adam Pardy, and David Moss are adequate role players who have done absolutely nothing to force GM Sutter's hand at the trade tables. However, again, if the right deal were to come along, the trigger would be pulled without hesitation.
Cory Sarich and Steve Staios are the only remaining question marks on the blue line. Sarich has shown flashes of both brilliance and lack of thought during his tenure in Calgary. Staios is a bit more unknown, having come from the Oilers at the trade deadline this year in an historic first time ever deal between the two Alberta clubs. Whether he stays or not, he will permanently now be associated with the Flames as a trivia question. How expendable are both these players will depend on Sutter's vision.
The two rookies who skated a lot with the team from January on look to be a bit of a lock to make at least the opening day roster at the start of the 2010 season. Mikael Backlund looked to be quite comfortable in his role on the team, providing smart play and an offensive touch around the net. He could have a good solid career as a 20-plus goal scorer when his game finally fully matures.
Brett Sutter could be the perfect replacement for Eric Nystrom should the team lose No. 23. Nepotism aside, this young man indeed comes from the hard-nosed, in-your-face family that refuses to quit and hates to lose, and he indeed possesses the famed Sutter blood and the Sutter style of game.
Overall, the Calgary Flames have both a strong nucleus and enough trade-bait to not rebuild, but retool itself into a very strong Western Conference Contender. All it needs, as stated by captain Jarome Iginla, is a few tweaks here and there and they can be back in the thick of the fight for first in the Northwest Division next season.